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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

January 2020


What research is available on the relationship between personalized learning practices and student engagement in grades K–12?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the relationship between personalized learning practices and student engagement in grades K–12. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Bishop, P. A., Downes, J. M., & Farber, K. (2019). Personalized learning in the middle grades: A guide for classroom teachers and school leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘Personalized Learning in the Middle Grades’ shows how teachers in grades 5–8 can leverage the use of personalized learning plans (PLPs) to increase student agency and engagement, helping youth to establish learning goals aligned with their interests and assess their own learning—particularly around essential skills that cut across disciplines. Drawing on their research and work with fifty schools in Vermont, where PLPs are used statewide, the authors show how personalized learning aligns with effective middle grades practice and provide in-depth examples of how educators have implemented PLPs in a wide range of schools representing different demographics and grade configurations. They also highlight five critical roles for teachers in personalized learning environments—as empowerer, scaffolder, scout, assessor, and community builder—and illustrate how teachers can adapt the PLP process for their own unique contexts. Grounded in experience and full of engaging examples, artifacts, and tools, the book builds on the emerging field of personalized learning and connects it with the developmental needs of middle schoolers to provide a unique and valuable resource for individual classroom teachers, teacher teams, school leaders, teacher-educators, and others.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Corry, M., & Carlson-Bancroft, A. (2014). Transforming and turning around low-performing schools: The role of online learning. Journal of Educators Online, 11(2). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This review of the literature examines online learning as a core strategy for bold, dramatic curricular reform within transformational or turnaround models in improving low-performing K-12 schools. The analysis of the literature in this area found benefits of online learning in transforming and turning around low-performing schools to include: (a) broadening access for all students and providing opportunities for students to recover course credit, (b) the potential to motivate and engage students due to the flexible and self-paced nature of online learning, and (c) providing highly individualized and differentiated environments allowing for personalized learning. As a number of schools and school districts move to online learning, it can be used not only as a curricular reform, but also as a tool to improve student achievement and turning around low-performing schools.”

Ferlazzo, L. (2017). Student engagement: Key to personalized learning. Educational Leadership, 74(6), 28–33. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Personalized learning has the potential to greatly improve student achievement—but realistic teachers know that any instructional strategy will only be effective if students are willing to do the work. That is why Larry Ferlazzo emphasizes the importance of weaving intrinsic motivation into every personalized learning classroom. Four key elements of instruction that promote intrinsic motivation, he writes, are autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance. Ferlazzo offers many specific ways in which he promotes these qualities in his teaching—some strategies that use technology and some that use non-tech approaches. Although his students are English language learners, these approaches can be equally useful for other students.”

Foundation for Blended and Online Learning. (2017). Why do students choose blended and online schools? The “end of average” requires personalized learning environments. Durango, CO: Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The total number of students in the United States attending online and blended schools is unknown. A reasonable estimate is between one and two million students, or roughly 2-4% of all students in the country. More than half of all states allow online schools that draw students across district boundaries; perhaps 350,000 students attend these schools. Other students in this study are attending online schools that serve students within a district or sub-state region, blended charter schools, and alternative education programs. Many of these schools are charter schools, and others are operated or authorized by school districts, intermediate units such as Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and County Offices of Education, and other organizations such as juvenile court schools. This report focuses primarily on why students choose online or blended schools. Also included in the report are brief profiles of five schools, from different regions of the country, that demonstrate different online and blended learning instructional models.”

Fox, C., & Jones, R. (2018). Navigating the digital shift 2018: Broadening student learning opportunities. Washington, DC: State Educational Technology Directors Association. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “State education leaders are committed to providing leadership to ensure that all students have access to personalized, engaging learning experiences supported by digital instructional materials and resources. With the transformation to digital learning, more and more states are enacting policies and guidelines to support the implementation and utilization of digital instructional materials, applications and resources. This publication highlights how state policies and guidance are supporting the transformation to digital learning, specifically the policies and processes around the selection, curation, procurement and funding of digital instructional materials. Evidence of state leadership in these areas—equity of access; accessibility for all students; interoperability; and student data and privacy—is highlighted throughout this publication. One will also find specific examples of state policies and guidance and district exemplars highlighting how state policies facilitated the use of digital instructional materials in the classroom to personalize learning. Findings suggest that the number of states with guidance and policies supporting the use of digital instructional materials continues to increase each year. This trend reflects the overall shift towards the implementation of digital instructional materials and the opportunity for educators to use digital applications and resources to support student learning.”

Gross, B., Tuchman, S., & Patrick, S. (2018). A national landscape scan of personalized learning in K-12 education in the United States. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “K-12 education is at the beginning of what many hope will be a systemic transformation toward personalized learning. Across the nation, schools are experimenting with personalized learning to better meet each student’s unique needs and ensure broader access to a world-class education. Many of these experiments have been captured in individual case studies and other vivid narratives, but the field lacks a broad-based understanding of how personalized learning is emerging in classrooms across the United States. As a result, it is difficult to know the extent to which personalized learning is actually taking hold across the country. The lack of systematic data on personalized learning also makes it hard for advocates and others to identify the kinds of challenges policymakers and practitioners alike may need to address in the years ahead. To better understand how personalized learning is playing out across the nation, a national survey of teachers and students was conducted. This report summarizes what these teacher and student surveys revealed about how personalized learning is—and is not—taking hold nationwide.”

Kellerer, P., Kellerer, E., Werth, E., Werth, L., Montgomery, D., Clyde, R., et al. (2014). Transforming K-12 rural education through blended learning: Teacher perspectives. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A qualitative study exploring rural teacher perspectives on the impact of blended learning on students and teachers was conducted in Idaho during the Fall of 2013. Researchers from Northwest Nazarene University’s DOCEO Center in partnership with Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA) and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) collaborated in interviewing, transcribing and analyzing responses from rural Idaho teachers on their perspectives of blended learning. Nineteen teachers were randomly selected to participate in the study based on the knowledge that they had participated in blended learning training provided by IDLA and were actively using blended learning in their classrooms. Eight teachers consented and participated in the semi-structured interview process conducted by members of the iNACOL Research Committee. The study sought to solicit teacher perceptions related to the following three questions: (1) What is your understanding of blended learning; (2) How has blended learning changed the way you teach; and (3) How has blended learning changed your students? Researchers at NNU’s Doceo Center evaluated and analyzed the results of participants’ responses. Eight significant themes emerged from the analysis, with the most frequently reported theme related to an increased level of student engagement in blended learning classrooms. Other significant themes related to teacher perceptions of students’ experiences in the blended learning classroom included a more personalized learning environment, the ability for students to be self-directed, the opportunity for students to create their own pace, and increased levels of student motivation. Significant themes emerged related to the teaching experience in the blended learning classroom. Teachers confirmed the role that blended learning plays in cultivating a student-centered environment, describing their role as facilitators of learning. In addition, teachers spoke to the importance of professional development in improving their quality of experience in implementing blended learning. Finally, teachers shared personal stories about the significance of just starting, of diving into the experience of creating blended learning classrooms. Results from this study were compared to a previous study conducted in Idaho (Werth, Werth, & Kellerer, 2013). Conclusions from this study supported many of the conclusions from the previous study including the positive impacts on students in the areas of motivation, student engagement, personalized learning and self-directedness. In addition, several of the themes reflect the positive benefits of blended learning on teachers as well, including an increased level of self-efficacy after ‘jumping in’ and being able to meet the needs of individual students.”

Parsi, A. (2015). A state of engagement: NASBE study group on student engagement. Arlington, VA: National Association of State Boards of Education. Retrieved from Full text available from

From the ERIC abstract: “Education is a $600 billion-a-year enterprise, but the investments states make in education will not benefit students unless they are physically and mentally present in the classroom. Too many students are not. In this report, the National Association of State Boards of Education asks policymakers to promote student engagement through a suite of policy changes. The report explores the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of student engagement and the role peers, educators, school environments, parents and communities play in helping students become invested in their own learning. The report finds that an educational system that more meaningfully engages students will require state policymakers to act. Five policy actions are recommended: (1) Promote measures of educational success that emphasize student engagement; (2) Back an educator preparation, learning, and support continuum that empowers school leaders, teachers, and other staff to facilitate more engaging experiences for students; (3) Advance school climate guidelines that build an environment more conducive to student engagement; (4) Invest in school structures that help personalize student learning and thereby expand student engagement; and (5) Encourage collaboration between schools, parents and other community stakeholders to address students’ comprehensive needs. Several states have made great progress toward these goals: Illinois routinely gathers student feedback on school learning conditions and climate, while Maryland is developing a statewide measurement system to assess school safety and student engagement. North Carolina and Delaware have established professional learning communities that foster teacher collaboration. Kansas has made headway on developing social, emotional and character development standards. Kentucky and others have invested in personalized learning strategies, and West Virginia and Connecticut seek out constructive community partnerships and have established structures for more open communications.”

Surr, W., Zeiser, K. L., Briggs, O., & Kendziora, K. (2018). Learning with others: A study exploring the relationship between collaboration, personalization, and equity. Final report. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Personalized learning is often equated with individual learning using technology. Yet for many students, learning on their own may not effectively meet their needs. The aim of this study is to explore racial differences in experiences and benefits associated with collaboration. The authors collected data from a variety of sources for students, teachers, and classrooms within four racially diverse high schools that emphasized both personalization and collaboration. The sample included 892 students, 138 teachers, and 30 classrooms. The qualitative analyses identified emergent themes from focus groups and interviews, and the quantitative analyses examined associations among opportunities for collaboration, classroom experiences, and outcomes, testing whether these associations differed for Black students versus White students. The authors found that, for all students, reports of high-quality collaboration were strongly associated with positive classroom experiences and mind-set/dispositional outcomes such as motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy. Moreover, high-quality collaboration was strongly associated with students’ perceptions of personalization—and personalization, in turn, was strongly associated with outcomes. At the same time, focus group discussions revealed that Black students perceived less relevance in collaborative activities, more frequent experiences of exclusion and marginalization, and lower support from teachers during collaborative group work than did non-Black peers. Findings from this study suggest that collaborative experiences could be among the factors that contribute to positive changes in the academic trajectories of Black students, particularly when these opportunities reflect high-quality features. Thus, schools and educators aiming to address equity through personalization should consider increasing opportunities for high-quality collaboration. American Institutes for Research (AIR) conducted this study as part of the Research Collaborative’s initial cycle of research. The team at AIR worked alongside fellow scholars, educators, and policymakers to investigate the impact of specific student-centered practices and then translate their findings for cross-sector audiences. This report represents their work over the past two years as they designed, tested, and revised teacher practices as part of a networked improvement community and examined how student agency impacted academic outcomes.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Personalized learning” “learner engagement”

  • “Personalized learning” “student engagement”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-;experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.